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Bob Ryan

Pierce’s old school newly appreciated

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 19, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Wouldn’t you pay cash money for the 17-year-old Paul Pierce to see a video of the wily codger who stutter-stepped, spun, floated, dived, flopped, and bamboozled his way to another scintillating 28-point playoff performance last night?

“Nah,’’ he’d say. “No way, man. That can’t be me with all funky stuff. Looks like some guy from the ’50s or somethin’.’’

“Sorry, Paul,’’ I’d have to say. “That’s the 2010 you. Deal with it. You’re Retroman.’’

The Celtics are now up a surprising two games to none in this Eastern Conference finals, for many reasons, the first being truly committed team defense. But high on the list of reasons has been the play of captain Paul Pierce, who scored 22 points in the opening game and added those 28 more as the Celtics beat the Magic, 95-92, last night.

“He’s got his game back,’’ said Doc Rivers. “I told you guys coming into this series that for us to do any damage, Paul would have to be big for us. During the Cleveland series he lost his rhythm. But [guarding] LeBron [James] had something to do with that.’’

Pierce took charge of the early offense all by himself, and that’s no hyperbole. He nailed a patented 12-foot turnaround 16 seconds into the game, and he went on to score the team’s first 9 points as the Celtics established themselves immediately in a game during which they would lead for 45 minutes 26 seconds of the 48, and in which they would trail once, for 41 seconds, in the final 22 minutes.

“Paul Pierce won this game for us with the way he started off tonight,’’ Rivers declared. “He put the team on his shoulders and gave everybody confidence.’’

This is, as Doc says, the Paul Pierce the Celtics must have if they are to keep advancing. He is by far their best one-on-one player, the best, in fact, in the history of the franchise. (Some day, perhaps, stubborn old-timers will finally admit this obvious truth).

He can get something at all times. It may not be pretty always, but he gets it, and many of those ugly maneuvers result in a trip to the free throw line. He long ago realized that there are no style points in this game. The only question for the guy throwing the ball toward the basket is, “Did it go in, or didn’t it?’’ That, or “Did you get the friendly toot?’’

Pierce is a truly a combination of the best the 21st century has to offer, combined with the best tricks of the old school. A defender never knows exactly what he’s going to do, because just when you think he’s setting you up for the step-back, he can spin a foot or two farther and take a face-up jumper. Or he can fake one way or the other, put the ball on the floor and go to the basket. Or he can torture his man with an up-fake, or two, or three, perhaps capped off by a lean-in that draws contact. And at the end of it, he hits the floor as if run over by the entire field of the Kentucky Derby, just in case the referee hasn’t already gotten the message.

All this chicanery is making him one of the most despised players in the league. I’m not talking about the players, who appreciate what he can do, but the fans, many of whom have never before seen someone with a playing style that seems to have been superimposed from 1959. What he’s doing would be nothing special at Convention Hall, Cobo Arena, the old Madison Square Garden, or Chicago Stadium.

From the Doc Rivers standpoint, it’s all about old school execution.

“He plays slow,’’ Rivers explains. “People think everything has to be fast. When I go to camps, I say that while other people beat you with quickness, Paul beats you with footwork. He’s the king of it.’’

He also has a very modern 3-pointer; let’s not forget that. It’s really as complete a scoring repertoire as there is in the league.

Pierce does chuckle when asked if he thinks the 17-year-old Paul Pierce would relate to the game he has now.

“Of course, not,’’ he says. “It’s all a learning process. You’ve got to learn from experience, the battles you go through. Some guys continue to grow. Hopefully, that’s what I’ll continue do.’’

His last official act before fouling out with 31.9 seconds to go was to take the ball, hold it, see the clock run down, get into a pack, crumble and await the whistle as the Amway Arena crowd howled in protest. Chet Walker would have been proud. And Retroman made the two free throws that created the final score. That’s Paul Pierce, a man for all centuries.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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